Painting on the Periphery: Abstraction in Vancouver
By Antoni Wojtyra, with Arabella Campbell
It's been busy for painting in Vancouver. There have been solo shows from Eli Bornowsky at Western Front and Elizabeth Macintosh at the Contemporary Art Gallery. A group show at the Belkin entitled FACES had copious amounts of painting, as did the current show by Thomas Houseago and Amy Bessone at the expansive galleries of the Rennie Collection. Recently, a Ken Lum show opened, as did Alex Morrison's show at Catriona Jeffries, which includes some small, but smart and colourful, geometric abstracts. A discovery was the work of the late Ron Stonier at Trench Gallery. Russell Baker – a contemporary furniture dealer, collector, art history buff and a friend – affectionately calls Stonier a "lonely guy." Stonier’s brilliantly coloured abstract paintings were created in the midst of the rise of Vancouver's photo prowess. Who did he talk to? What was his milieu? Did he really work in isolation? But, principally, why am I wondering about abstract painting out here on the periphery?
I don’t fully understand contemporary abstract painting. I understand it, historically. It was a moment; a period. To make abstract paintings today is either to take up the massive challenge of expanding the genre’s lexicon or to fail: to make decorative objects or to make hollow historical references. It’s a tightrope. Knowing that Arabella paints abstract paintings – and does so well – I asked her to discuss it with me.
We decided to first look at Eli Bornowsky’s Walking Square Cylinder Plane at Western Front. In Jesse McKee’s curatorial essay for the exhibition, the artist is described as a “craftsman, working as an abstractionist.” Indeed, Bornowsky has created and garnered a reputation as an abstract painter, as well as a noise enthusiast. His best known body of work exploited modestly sized square-shaped substrates, divided by regularly placed circles; they retained a compositional structure as the artist experimented with the compositional logic animated by colour. The new work shows a repeated compositional structure at work again. It is well described by McKee as follows:
“A field of black and white scribbled abstraction is a constant visual ground in each work in the exhibition. Noticeably in each painting, a confidently coloured stripe, approximately one quarter of the width of the canvas, vertically stretches across either the left or right hand side or horizontally along the bottom field. A third and more varied motif of a figure rests between or on top of these compositions. A cartoon-like purple foot, an irregular and textured shape or a small box containing its own miniature landscape, are just some of the figures that seem to offer concrete positioning for the eye. Each large canvas is crowned with an accompanying smaller canvas, which is positioned in no repeatable method, except to say that they rest above.”
They are “companion” canvases. As described by McKee, and from our own experiences, these paintings aren’t abstract. Some are anthropomorphic. Others have clear references to art history. Bornowsky says he uses abstraction because it provides an “alternative to the predominance of the cinematic in our visual culture.” He’s right, but to what end? I have no idea. The paintings in this show took us into a conversation about what is an abstract painting and what isn’t. Why? Why not? We set off on this interesting, digressing tangent. I thank Bornowsky for it. We looked at and collected library pictures. We read. We looked and studied. We drank coffee and talked.
"A painting is an object which has an emphatic frontal surface. On such a surface, I paint a black band which does not recede, a colour band which does not obtrude, a white square or rectangle which does not move back or forth, to or fro, or up or down; there is also a painted, white exterior frame band which is edged around the edge to the black. Every part is painted and contiguous to its neighbour: no part is above or below any other part. No part looks like it is above or below any other part. There is no hierarchy. There is no ambiguity. There is no illusion. There is no space or interval (time).” – “I am no longer an abstract artist” by Jo Baer, from Jo Baer Paintings.
I read this distinguished description of abstract painting in my e-mail one morning. Arabella had discovered it and sent it to me. It was a rainy Thursday. That day we traversed Vancouver. We saw every exhibition we could. From the Belkin’s aforementioned show to Rodney Graham’s photo and Tacita Dean’s film in The Voyage or Three Years at Sea – Part 1 show at Charles H. Scott on Granville Island. We finished the day by looking at Alex Morrison’s show. There, alongside his other work, Morrison had hung seven or so small, colourful canvases. These hard-edged paintings are composed of small, mainly triangular, shapes on symmetrical designs. Morrison’s colour choices made the symmetry slippery; as soon as one’s eyes composed a seeming balance, the entire mass evaporated. His adventurous-but-quiet hanging composed the work as a page of images in an album - think of colour plates in a catalogue. His invocation of history brings me to the late Ron Stonier.
Born in Victoria in 1933, Stonier graduated from the Vancouver School of Art in 1957. He dedicated his practice to abstract painting. Or, as his widow clarified for us, “non-representational” painting. Before and through the midst of the fashionable “new work” and the local swagger of photo-conceptualism’s proponents, Stonier painted. His work ranges from hard edge geometry to loose gestures. From him, we see the only examples of West Coast target paintings. Unlike Claude Tousignant or Kenneth Noland, these are small paintings. In the medium-size range, Stonier becomes gestural and allows himself to be free with the brush. The standouts of his output, however, are the wide band paintings. Imagine three or four wide horizontal bands across a 200-centimetre tall, rectangular canvas. Most of us have seen this type of painting, but what we haven’t seen is this colour. Stonier picked up the vibrancy of Vancouver’s light by using an unsettling mix of taupes, pale pinks, violets, greens, bright blues and, sometimes it seems, an infinite spectrum of oranges. Stonier infuses a viewer’s visual space and imagination of this geography with a delicate touch. It’s refreshing because we think that this era has been described solely with lenses, shutters and film. This place, this landscape and its cultural foliage has a rich history of painting that spans into the past well beyond Graham, Lum, Wall, Wallace et al. Most notable is Emily Carr, of course. But, one could create a lineage from her to BC Binning to Gary Lee Nova to the photo-conceptualists.
The terrain is extraordinarily expansive if you let your imagination go beyond the traditional story. Art’s work – I’ve learned and like to believe – is to destabilize, confuse and recompose my opinions and my understanding. Good art does that. This ride, all this wondering and caffeine-catalyzed conversation about abstract painting, has been about reconfiguring the story and filling gaps. But, what it couldn’t do is dictate when this disruptive moment would creep up.
In the beginning of 2011, Arabella and I were flummoxed by one show: Michael Drebert’s STAR HOUSE and I CARRY A PILE OF STICKS at CSA Space.
Drebert is bearded, long-haired and is currently pursuing an MFA at the University of Victoria. Although relatively young, he has exhibited across Vancouver’s gallery spectrum. Recently, for artist-run Artspeak, he composed a simple, text-based piece, Available Light. It was disseminated through posters around the city. It announced: “Between the dates of March 7 and March 14, I will use the available light in Vancouver to try to start a fire. I don’t know how big it will get. But hopefully big enough.” More recently, he was included in a group show at the Vancouver Art Gallery. His work at the VAG used text irreverently. Painted on white paper, the text describes the journey of a puzzle piece stolen from the gallery’s gift shop to an outlying coastal island and back. Succinct and subtle, these carefree painted texts, coupled to performative gestures, create a dialogue between destruction and an optimistic creation.
Initially, Drebert’s art isn’t much to look at. Its ink-on-paper lacks “care.” It’s not “good-looking.” It lacks the illusive sensibility traditionally found in most painting. Instead, its rendering is energetic and joyful. It relies on modesty of material and text to centre us in the gallery. It then gently dislocates our mind’s eye. Clement Greenberg - who else did you think I would consult about abstract art? - states that “for the cultivated eye, the picture repeats its instantaneous unity like a mouth repeating a single word. This pinpointing of the attention, this complete liberation and concentration of it, offers what is largely a new experience to most people in our sort of society.” Drebert’s work at CSA Space uses a terseness to exact our attention and created an exceedingly high-quality experience. More then all the other paintings out here lately, it got us talking:
Antoni Wojytra (AW): Tell me about the fire Drebert set at the opening. I wasn't there.
Arabella Campbell (AC): During Drebert's opening, there was anticipation amongst those not in the know, that an unknown performance was to take place at an uncertain moment. Suddenly, we were all herded down the hall, out the back door and on to Kingsway for a cigarette. Michael followed with a neatly wrapped bundle: canvas, string and a collection of driftwood that he had gathered on the beach from where he drew inspiration for this exhibition. The bundle had been sitting, sculpturally, in the gallery up until then. The wood was well-dried and instantly set a comforting blaze between two dumpsters, on the sidewalk, just below a natural gas meter. We gathered around. For the next four days, I had the smell of the fire in my sweater. Tell me about your first visit to Drebert's show. How did it affect you?
AW: I enjoy the direct honesty of STAR HOUSE. Here's a show of paintings with bold black ink on paper. Not Arches or BFK Rives or anything expensive. It's just white paper and not too thick because it's buckled up and down from the ink. Where needed, it's held together with tape to make large sheets, and they are unframed. The material is unpretentious, but it speaks comfortably to the content. It's an even match. There are four pieces in all. One is a solid tent-like shape, the other three are straight-forward text works. Rendered with conviction and care, but without calligraphic or typographic craftiness. At first, I was stumped to construct a proper meaning. The paintings don't direct much but gracefully leave the imagination wild. Since the show I've been thinking a lot about the beach as a breathing and alive space that has much more distance then its sands demarcate. Did the show give your imagination a narrative to work out?
AC: This show has given my imagination a workout, but not so much a narrative. I am thankful for both of these things. Lately, I have been searching for work in art galleries that leaves room for my imagination to be part of the experience. It happens with this exhibition. I like a narrative, but I don't need it here because Drebert has adeptly taken a word or a shape, from what was once an object, and turned it in to a painting that is now more like an object. And so, I am here, going back and forth, without the need for a narrative. What do you think about the use of text in this work?
AW: It's bewitchingly terse and bold. Adventurously large for CSA. For me, the words are extracts, nouns of a moment, and I like your assessment because it's quite accurate. The text plays proxy to the real objects. They are modest: COHO, MEDICINE, BULL KELP. What's interesting is that they point at the physical architecture of CSA Space. The BULL KELP diptych, modest in size and hung a touch lower then the other works, straddled one of the corners. When a painting goes to the corner, I go to Kazimir Malevich's Black Square (1915), which points to the mystical and a work in a corner implicates architecture. It can centre a viewer in situ and has invoked landscape for me, especially the beach. I'm back here again because the show has drawn my imagination towards a chasm between the life of submarine space and a stark show of paintings in a white cube situated in the triangular block between Main, Kingsway and Broadway. It's a big beach! May I say, it's cosmic? I mean, what does STAR HOUSE mean? What space does this show occupy?
AC: I agree with you, this exhibition invokes a sense of landscape and the cosmos, but in a valid, subtle manner that doesn't override my experience with the objects in it. What I like about it is I can have this gallery experience and also be taken somewhere else. STAR HOUSE is, from my understanding, the name Drebert gave to the shelter/structure he found on the beach, from where he watched the stars one night.
AW: Much like star gazing, the experience is subtle and has the potential to be easily dismissed. Do you think he's sharing some mystical experience? Was the fire an offering or ritualistic? How do you see it?
AC: Are you talking about the experience of the whole exhibition? If so, I don't agree that it can potentially be easily dismissed. The fire was a use of material and the means to a performance, just as the bull kelp provided a means to inspire a drawing that was hung on the wall.
AW: Stars are there on clear nights. If you don't allow yourself to look up, they aren't. Maybe it's callous to speak on behalf of society here, but star-gazing and severe art experiences aren't afforded proper gravitas. It's not the first time Michael has played with fire and I think the fire is a ritual of some sort. I wasn't there, but it speaks about a burning bush, incense burned for Buddha, frankincense burned at mass, and bodies burned and floated down the river. Stuck in your sweater for four days goes back to marshmallows and camp songs, too.
AC: Maybe it is that mystical/spiritual sense because some days I still think I can smell the fire in my sweater. Although it is not there, the moment has become a significant, real event that reoccurs as a learned sense.
AW: Just maybe? Tell me about your idea of a learned sense. What do you mean?
AC: You know what a straight line looks like and you know what the colour red is, from what you have learned, or from what you have been told it is. That is what I mean by a learned sense of something. So, what I am experiencing is maybe not a sixth sense, but an additional olfactory experience that is activated through memory whenever I come in contact with the sweater. The object triggers a pattern of behaviour that I see as learned. Does this make any sense?
AW: Yes. You’re experiencing the spirit, the dust, the smoke of a thing... I’d call that mystic.
Tonik Wojtyra uses the Internet, photography, writing and painting in collaborative ways to make art. He currently resides in Vancouver and is working as a painter.
Arabella Campbell lives and works in Vancouver. Exhibitions in 2011 will be mounted at Catriona Jeffries and CSA Space, both in Vancouver.